Wednesday, 26 April 2017

V is for...Voices...and...Vegetal

is for a no-show

Just like P, there is no V in Arabic! And yet Vega is the name of a star which has come from Arabic roots, go figure!

It’s a contraction of the original Arabic name An Nasr Al Waqi (the Falling/Diving Eagle).  When the name was transliterated into Latin maybe couple millennia ago, the W got replaced with a V, because Latin did not possess any W until the Middle Ages. Fun fact, yeah? Okay, now for the serious bit -

Voices – I witnessed some come out of the Arab Spring that year of 2011. Note that the first two are practically unknown, independent bands/artistes creating these powerful protest songs with minimal resources and massive dedication. Both of these bands existed before 2011, but shot to prominence through the Egyptian Revolution, Cairokee particularly so with this number which had more than a million views in a few days after they uploaded it to YouTube. Ana Mawgood (I exist) and Sout al Horreya (The Voice of Freedom) are especial favourites of mine. 

The Arab Spring, whatever its merits or flaws, or outcomes, spiked so much creativity in so many ways, it’s given rise to a cultural bonanza – in street art and music and theatre and photography, perhaps in fine arts and literature as well.  And it broke the taboo on the arts being used for social and political activism for that period.

Mohammed Mounir is an established artiste of some three decades' solid standing, known as ‘The King’ after his film ‘El Malik Huwa El Malik’ (The King is the King). Here is his Ezzay? (How come?) 

And, last but not the least, Vegetal designs – because  Islam forbade the depiction of the human form as idolatrous, Arab designers came up with new ways of decorating stuff, a set of motifs culled from preceding cultures and re-purposed to suit Islamic principles, based on flowers and vines and trees. These are called Vegetal designs.

Detail of vegetal design. Nasrid Palace. 
14th century. Alhambra, Granada, Spain.

They also developed a highly refined set of designs based on the geometry of the circle. These started off with a central shape and radiated out, and could be repeated infinitely to cover a surface no matter how large. I can tell you there were some serious Maths nerds among the early Arab scholars, and their formidable grasp of the subject must have kept the designing rolling along pretty nicely.

Vegetal designs at the back entrance of Al Azhar Mosque,
10th century. Cairo.

These styles of decorations were known as Arabesques, their origins made plain in the term itself, though now the word is largely outdated. 

Antique style gramophone horn with vegetal motifs. Coppersmiths'
market. 2012. Sharia Muizz. Khan el Khalili. Cairo.

Vegetal designs around rim of basin. Central fountain (sabil)
in the Barquq Complex. 14th century. Cairo.

Detail of design on the inside of an arch.
Al-Ghuri Mosque. 16th century. Cairo.

Detail of ceramic tile inset on contemporary
building facade, combining geometric and 

vegetal elements. 2014. Nizwa. Oman.

Detail of design carved on old wooden door shutters. 2016. National 
Museum, Manama, Bahrain.

These motifs remain part of the Arab design portfolio, many contemporary buildings also use them suitably updated.  Have you seen any  - on buildings, or book covers, coffee mugs, photo frames, where you are? 

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

U is for...Unbelievable...and...Universities

is for

Diva no. 1 Unbelievable Umm Kulthum. And if you are an Arab and a Fairouz fan reading this, hang on before you strangle me, I am a Fairouz fan myself.  Speaking only chronologically, Umm Kulthum was born at least 30 years before Fairouz and the first megastar to rock the whole of the Arab world, therefore no. 1. Most Arabs I've come across are conflicted about these two top singers - Fairouz and Umm Kulthum, who is more important or more adored.

Umm Kulthum was an Egyptian singer, composer and film star. Her date of birth is uncertain, end of 19th century or beginning of 20th but she was the definitive 20th century phenomenon in Arab music. Her voice was legendary, her technical skills utterly flawless, her concerts, broadcast on the radio from Cairo on the first Thursday of every month, brought entire cities to a standstill as people left everything else and tuned in. And her audiences stayed riveted for hours – she sang only a few songs, two or three, in a concert lasting typically for as many hours. Epic!

It’s rather difficult to translate ‘tarab’ from Arabic to English, the dictionary calls it rapture, ecstasy, and leaves it at that. Whatever 'tarab' might translate to, Umm Kulthum was capable of delivering it and held her audiences totally spellbound. When she died in 1975, millions of people poured into the streets in spontaneous mourning and waited for her cortege.  Her records continue to sell in the millions even today, more than forty years after her death.

Here is a short clip from one of her performances illustrating her hold over her audience:

And one of her very famous hour-long songs to bookmark for later, if you want to explore further:


The oldest, continuously operational universities are in the Arablands.  The first is the Karaouine University, in Fez, Morocco, established by a lady called Fatima al-Fihri in 859 CE.  The other is Al-Azhar University in Cairo, established in 970-972 CE by the Fatimid Caliphs.  These were both complexes which included large libraries along with mosques, where scholars gathered to discuss various issues.

Al Azhar Mosque on Al Azhar Street.  The start of the university. The
current campus has moved to a different location in New Cairo.

Al Azhar in particular remains the highest religious authority for Sunni Islam, and it has several thousand schools in Egypt affiliated to it. The attached library is recognised as the second most important collection after the National Library in Egypt. 

The library building at Karaouine has recently been extensively restored, and there’s a lab set up now to treat, moisture-proof, preserve and subsequently digitise the priceless collection of manuscripts.  The architect, another lady of Arab origins - Aziza Chaouni, a Canadian-Moroccan whose grandfather studied at this university, hopes it will become a part of the local residents’ lives.


Here is the eight point star, a motif that's present everywhere in Arablands or even Arab influenced lands.  It's made pretty simply, by placing one square over another the same size at half a right angle to each other. It's called Rub al Hizb in Arabic, Rub meaning 'four' or 'quarter' and Hizb meaning 'group.' The symbol existed before the advent of Islam, it was absorbed and made-over by the Arabs into an Islamic one.

The eight-point star on a lantern. Cairo, Egypt.

The eight-point star in the logo for the Metro. Maadi, Cairo.

The eight-pointer in a Moorish mosaic. Seville, Spain.

The central motif in a fountain basin in marble.
Wikala al Ghouri, 16th century, Islamic Cairo.

The 8-pointer etched on glass shutters of the main entrance
to the Beit al Quran (House of Quran) Museum. Bahrain.

The 8-point star motif in the floor of a prominent public building in
Mumbai, India. The cultural exchange between Arabs and India has
been deep and long standing, predating Islam by centuries, even

The simple combination of two squares becoming the start of the most complex circular, radiating designs. The passion for stars translated into a pivotal motif present everywhere.  The Arabs have this unique talent for taking very simple lines and fashioning from them some amazingly sophisticated designs. Neat or what? 

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 

Monday, 24 April 2017

T is for Tanoura....and....Tops....

Welcome to the last week of the A-Z Challenge! Home stretch! The Week of the Tough Cookies - from U to Z one after another, relentless! Personally, it's going to be an intense week - there is also a local poetry event on the 29th, and I'm participating...what? only the blog was supposed to be poetry-free in April, offline it's the same old same old...can't banish poetry from real life, are you kidding me? :) anyways time for

which is for


There are many sects within Islam, and Sufism is a mystical, introspective sect. Some of the Sufis whirl as a spiritual act of submission, they are known as the whirling dervishes. In Egypt, the Sufi whirling has evolved in a particular trajectory all its own.  Some dance scholars feel that they blend remnants of ancient Egyptian ritual dances and folk traditions with the Sufi performance. Also, the Egyptian Sufis dress in colourful skirts, and the word for the skirt gives the name to the performance – Tanoura.

Vibrant skirts! they give the name to the performance. The colours 
represent the various Sufi orders. Each skirt weighs around 5 kg. 
A dervish may wear two skirts for the whirling ceremony. 

Starts off with individual musicians introducing their instruments through 
solo recitals. Here finger cymbals called 'sagat' are being played.

The percussion instruments. The lead is the goblet drum called
'darbouka' in Arabic, the tambourines are called 'riqq,' as you know.

The philosophy of the performance is based on the belief that the world moves in circles, begins and comes back to the same point, and therefore the Sufis spin, mimicking that motion.  They whirl anticlockwise, as pilgrims do in the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine. 

The 'sagat' 'speaks' to the 'darbouka' in a call-and-response duet,
the finger cymbals ask a question and the drum answers.

Apart from the saqat and darbouka, reed flutes (ney) and
lutes (rabab) are the other instruments accompanying.

The Tanoura performance is split in three parts.  The first is a warm up - an introduction to the various musical instruments accompanying the Sufis, followed by the presentation performance, more spiritual in its execution. And the last part is pure magic, the music revs up, three dancers come on stage, the whole atmosphere is electrifying. 

The solo performer discards a black jacket, whirls with
these 'mute' tambourines, and by the end has discarded 

both the skirts he started off with.  

Each action, each gesture of the arm and hand, each discarded item – jacket or skirt or the tambourine or the banner that the main performer holds, has a spiritual significance. 

Traditionally, the Tanoura is performed at Moulids, the celebration
of a Sufi Saint's Day, 

But this be the thing, you don’t have to know the least bit about them, or about Sufism, or spirituality or anything, to enjoy this colourful, lively, folksy, quasi-religious and amazing performing art! 

Three performers set the stage alight with their energy, vibrancy 
and colours. 

Eye-contact and an engaging connect with the audience.

While the solo Tanoura is more about spirituality this is pure
showmanship and consummate skill.

The skirt is spun vertically, horizontally, 
and on every possible plane. 

A thumping good time guaranteed, it'll make you want to stand up and take a few twirls yourself. Just go watch it if you are in Cairo. 
This part lasts for around 45 minutes, roughly 
the same as the first.

And the final step, the skirt is loosened and removed. Show over!

And here is a number called El Tanoura – the skirt, by popular singer Fares Karam from Lebanon. Arab pop numbers make great music for dancing along. I’m not so sure I’m quite comfortable with the message of the video/lyrics, uff, uff, uff!! When will media portrayals of women stop being all about their skirt lengths and see-through Tops, how much more Time will it freaking Take?? but let’s leave the heavy stuff out and just enjoy the beats.

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 

Saturday, 22 April 2017

S is for Stars....of Several kinds

is for
Shukran gazeelan!

Probably the most well-known bit of Arabic among non-native speakers  - it means ‘thank you very much!’ The g can be pronounced either hard as in 'go' or as in 'jet' depending on the regional dialect. Whichever way you say it, you'll be understood.     

Singer Yousra El Hawary with El Soor - the Wall - a song about a wall built to keep out protesters during the Egyptian Revolution. One of the loveliest voices to come out of the Arab Spring.

More of her music at her own Site. 

Also, Samira Said, a Moroccan-Egyptian and a much awarded and successful singer, can't not mention her!


Why do so many star names sound so abstruse? I mean, Achernar, Betelgeuse, Deneb Algedi, Rasalased, seriously? Where did these even come from? They don’t sound anything like Greek or Latin, the two languages on which most Western nomenclature is based. Well, star names don’t sound like Greek or Latin because they aren’t Greek or Latin, simple.  Those are actually, yup, you knew this was coming, didn't you? Arabic.

Betelgeuse derives from Ibt al Jauza or the Armpit of the Giant (the Giant being Orion) or more likely Yad al Jauza (the Hand of the Giant). How did Yad become Bet? That’s because a careless transcriber/translator missed a dot. The letter for B in Arabic is the exact same as Y, except that B has one dot below it, while Y has two.  Somewhere along the line someone misread or miswrote Y and B and voila - Betelgeuse! A case of Arabic whispers, only written not verbal. Achernar is Akhir an Nahr (End of the River in Arabic), Rasalased is from Ras al Assad (Head of the Lion) and so on.

The nomads named their visible stars in antiquity, no-one knows when exactly, maybe 2-3000 years ago.  These names themselves were built from the ancient legends and myths of Sumer, Babylon  and Mesopotamia. 

The Egyptian-Greek, Claudius Ptolemy (100-170 CE), lived in Alexandria and wrote three monumental works of importance (in Koine Greek) – one each on astronomy, astrology and geography.  In his treatise on astronomy called Almagest now (it went by a different, more complex moniker at the time of writing), he catalogued all the known stars, among other things. Ptolemy catalogued around 48 star constellations, it became the definitive text from which all astronomers worked for centuries after, though the original Greek version was lost, preserved only in translation.

The Almagest in due course was translated into Arabic. The star names from Almagest were converted to Arabic and some more of their own Arab names added, the ones handed down to them by their nomad ancestors, from the ancient civilisations of the Middle East.

Al Sufi, known in the west as Azophi (10th century), carried out extensive observations in Persia, in Yemen, in Iraq, and published the first critique to Ptolemy’s Almagest, which was by then many centuries old.  In it, he refined some of Ptolemy’s observations and also added his own.  This ground breaking book, in which the names of the stars were obviously in Arabic, was called Kitab Suwar al Kawakib al Thabitha (The Book of Fixed Stars) and went onto become a classic. Many of these Arabic star names were later on transmitted to Latin during the Middle Ages and down the years to modern times.

Courage, brother, do not Stumble
Though thy path be dark as night,
There's a Star to guide the humble,
Trust in God and do the right.
Let the road be rough and dreary
And it's end far out of Sight,
Foot it bravely; Strong or weary
Trust in God and do the right...

~ Norman Macleod, 1867

The Spirit always flags a bit by the time the A-Z gets into it's last third, and this time is no different. It becomes more of a Struggle to keep up the visits, the reading, the returns, and the comments, and it doesn't help that my weekends don't match up with the A-Z's Sabbath. And it's compounded by the fact the toughest letters are Strategically concentrated in a Series of obstacles in this last bit. But I'll rally, I know I will, can't Stop now! 

Talking about devotionals, are you aware of the Stereotype about Arabs avoiding any music apart from religious music? Music is supposed to be unIslamic. I don't know if that's right or wrong, no comment.  But I can't help pointing out that I do hear a massive amount of Secular, - traditional and popular and alternative music being Sung and listened to all around me in Arablands. And the largest Arabic record label - Rotana? it's based out of Saudi, Supposedly the nation of the Strictest interpretation of Islam, go figure! 

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 

Friday, 21 April 2017

R is for Reeha!...and...Roubi...and...Riqq...and...Raqs Sharqi

is for

(ar) Reeha! 

literally 'the smell' - this is what you answer when you're asked how much sugar you want in your tea, and you don't want it doused in half a kilogram! You just want a spoonful, 'the flavour' of sugar in it.  If you want it sweeter, you say 'mazboot' meaning 'strong,' and if you do want a quarter cup sugar in one cup tea, then it's 'zyada,' or 'more.'

Roubi, an Egyptian singer, and notice how she incorporates some nifty dance moves into her music. 

Riqq is the Arab frame drum, a tambourine, an essential part of the line-up of percussion instruments for both traditional classical and folk Arab music.  They are sometimes called def or daf also. 

Frame drums go back a long time, they appear in paintings and reliefs from the third millennium BCE in Mesopotamia. They used to be the main percussion instrument in the Arab classical tradition till the 20th century.  The riqq has been displaced from its prime position after the darbouka or the goblet drum, common to Arab folk music, was introduced into the classical accompaniments.

Adel Shams El Din is one of the most well-known masters of riqq – from Alexandria, now residing in France.  He has recorded over 40 albums. Here is a riqq solo by him:

Read more about the history and use of the riqq here.

Raqs Sharqi 
literally means Eastern or Oriental dance and refers to what is known as Belly dance in the Western world.  Yup, one of the eternal stereotype of Arabs - Billionaires, Bombers or Belly dancers!

It is actually a traditional Arab folk dance which is performed in two completely different contexts: at family occasions like weddings and in normal garments. And as a performing art by trained professionals in special dance costumes.  The costumes necessarily bare the midriff so as to showcase the dance moves, which can be sensuous, sinuous and/or raunchy, depending on the interpretation.  This is looked down upon by some as contrary to the teachings of modesty in Islam. There are also restrictions in place on public performance in some places, on what can be worn (the navel must be covered in Egypt, for instance) and the moves. However, the associated stigma does not prevent any number of women and also to a much lesser extent men, both Arabs and foreigners, to learn it and perform.

In recent years, Shakira (who has a part Lebanese heritage) has included Raqs Sharqi choreography in many of her performances, and has brought this art into the limelight and popularised it across the world. 

Watch one of the best contemporary belly dancers - Dina Talaat, perform in this clip.

Have you ever watched a performance of Raqs Sharqi or Belly dancing live? What did you think of it? Too raunchy for you? Or riveting?

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Q is for...what else? - Qahira!

is for
Qusai, from Saudi Arabia- here with Umm al Dunya, or the Mother of the World:

And here again is my fav Egyptian musician - Amr Diab, singing Qahira, featuring another well-known Egyptian artiste, nicknamed 'the King' – Mohammed Mounir. The video's subtitled, and Amr completely sums up my feelings on the subject :)

And that stringed instrument that the lady is playing? that's called the Qanun, part of traditional Arabic music ensembles, played by plucking with two thimble-like picks worn on each hand.  The Indian santoor is a close relative with the same Middle Eastern roots. 


Al Qahira is the Arabic name for Cairo, the largest city in the Arablands and also in Africa.  Including its greater metropolitan area, it is among the top 20 cities in the world in terms of size. Located on the river Nile, just before the delta fans out, its strategic position has meant that it has played an important role in Egypt since antiquity. It's called ‘Umm al Dunya’ or 'Mother of the World’ by local Cairenes, a nickname that's come about due to the impact of the city on the wider Arab culture.

The Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khafre just
outside Cairo on the Giza Plateau. 

Heliopolis on the East side was the site of the famous, ancient sun temple. Memphis, located 20 km away, was the capital of several Old Kingdom dynasties. The Romans built a fortress near Cairo and called it Babylon.  It's been a pivot of political, social and cultural life for millennia.

Sunset over the Qasr al Nil bridge, leading to Tahrir
Square, scene of protests during 2011. 

The Arabs conquered Egypt in 641 CE, and Fustat was their first capital located a little southwards from Cairo, the administrative hub for around 5 centuries.  

The minarets of Sultan Hassan and Al Rifai Mosques.

The Fatimid dynasty conquered Egypt in 969 and Al Qahira was built by Jawhar al Siqilli, a Sicilian slave and the commander in chief of Muiz li Din Allah, the fourth Fatimid Caliph.  

Salahuddin's Citadel, and Mohammed'd Ali Mosque within it, on the
right in the far distance. The Mosque more recent than the Citadel.

View of Cairo from the Citadel. Not for nothing is it known
as the City of a Thousand Minarets!

Salahuddin Ayyoub overthrew the Fatimids in 1170’s, realigned Cairo towards the Caliphate in Baghdad. He also built the Cairo Citadel which served as the seat of the government right up to the 19th century.

The Nile at night. The river has an enormous impact on Cairo
as well as Egypt as a whole. Egypt is because of the Nile.

In 1250, slave soldiers, known as Mamluks, took control of Cairo.  The city continued to flourish as a hub of the spice trade.  The Mamluks ruled till the Ottomans overthrew them in the 16th century and Cairo passed into Turkish hands.  

Sharia Khiyyamiya, or the Tentmakers' Street in Islamic Cairo.

Emad el Din Street in Downtown Cairo. In the 19th century,
Ismail Pasha, the then ruler of Egypt, remodelled/modernised
Cairo in the style of European capitals, especially Paris. He
also built the Suez Canal with huge loans from European banks, 

and these enormous debts meant Europeans soon sat on the 
Egyptian cabinet.

In the last few centuries, modern Cairo has seen a French invasion, become a British protectorate, been the venue for three national revolutions, and umpteen other politically, socially charged events. 

Did you know the Arabs are very foreigner-friendly? In twenty years, I remember meeting only two Arabs who were rude and Quarrelsome and they were both desperately unhappy people. In contrast, I’ve met many, many Arabs who went completely out of their way to help us - total strangers.

That’s not to say the guides and touts, cabbies and shopkeepers, won’t cheat sometimes, of course some of them will try. There are a few dodgy ones everywhere who spoil the majority-reputation. But the cheaters will do it with unfailing courtesy and a very articulate, not Quiet, charm :)

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017